Stephen F. Austin State University’s spatial science program is using the latest technology in unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as drones, to provide an entirely new vantage of Appleby’s historic Bethel Cemetery, enabling caretakers to precisely document and map the more than 1,500 plots dating back to 1887 when it was founded alongside Bethel Baptist Church.

Bill Shumate, president of the Bethel Cemetery Association, said he reached out to Dr. Daniel Unger, professor of remote sensing and geographic information systems at SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, following the East Texas GIS, GPS User Group meeting held at the college in February.

“I was intrigued by what the professors were able to do with drone technology, and realized I have an application for it,” Shumate said.

Shumate explained that currently only the boundaries of the cemetery are surveyed, enabling him to remotely determine the section and row in which a person is interred, but not the precise plot.

His ultimate goal is to develop a plat, a map showing the precise divisions of a piece of land, that will visually display the relative location of every gravestone in the cemetery. Past attempts to do so using Google Maps have been unsuccessful due to a lack of high-resolution imagery.

Last month, Unger traveled to the cemetery with a drone in tow to collect 4 gigabytes of high-resolution imagery obtained by simply flying a predetermined flight path over the area.

“It’s interesting to see the pattern that they laid out the plots in,” Unger said. “It’s definitely not linear.”

At 131-years-old, it is unsurprising that the cemetery holds secrets in the form of unmarked graves, but Shumate and members of the Bethel Cemetery Association are doing their best to shed light on the location’s history and inhabitants.

“There are graves that are unmarked, and some are actually visible on the digital imagery,” Shumate said. “Obviously in the last 131 years there are some burials that have gotten by us, but we have located what we believe are unmarked graves through depressions in the ground or some other indicator. Those locations have been marked with a white cross.”

Leona Hunt is believed to be the first documented internment in the cemetery in 1887.

The Bethel Cemetery Association will host its annual picnic on Saturday, April 28, where Shumate plans to reveal the imagery gathered, as well as his progress on creating the cemetery’s first plat.

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